Hyphens & Hashtags* by Claire Cock-Starkey

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Subtitled “The stories behind the symbols on our keyboards” (the subtitle linked to the main title via an asterisk rather than a colon), this is a great little book about, broadly, punctuation marks, glyphs (including the hash, ampersand and asterisk), the basic mathematical symbols and some excellent additional symbols at the end, which may or may not be drifting out of use. I have to break it to you that not all of them are actually ON the keyboards in front of us, however some have appeared there in the past (hello, Interrobang!) and some didn’t join the keyboard until the 1970s (I do in fact remember using an old typewriter where you had to type an apostrophe then back-space to add a dot to produce an exclamation mark!) and it would be a slimmer and less interesting volume without them. So we’ll allow that, I feel. 

Claire Cock-Starkey is a non-fiction writer on book and museum orientated topics, so well-placed and well-informed to write this book. She offers a clear introduction and suggests the book can be dipped in and out of as well as read straight through. I did the latter and because of the former, there is a certain amount of repetition; not enough to be annoying, though, and offering clear guidance for the dipper-in-and-out. 

A strong theme through the book is the changing nature of all of these symbols, both in earlier times as they were caught and codified, often with decisions being made between several different forms of a symbol being concurrently used (I loved the idea of a symbol of a pair of legs walking towards a number being used to signify addition, and this dual symbol use is something which still goes on today, for example the different quotation marks used by English and European language texts), but also in modern times as coding and Internet usages change and re-establish symbols. These modern changes range from the use of the colon in a smiley face emoji to the re-establishment of disappearing glyphs. There are also cultural uses outside text exchanges, for example an alt-right use of triple parentheses that thankfully got overwhelmed by a movement to reclaim their use, and more positively, the use of the semicolon as a tattoo (Project Semicolon) presenting a positive symbol for overcoming mental health issues.

The section on the perhaps esoteric and dying symbols was not as negative as it might have been. The hedera/fleuron used to be used as a paragraph mark but became a textual decoration, and the tilde has developed a new online use which has saved it from extinction. And the pilcrow (¶) still exists but invisibly, in both the space that was left for it to be drawn in attractively at the start of paragraphs and in the codes shown by hitting the button with the same symbol in word-processing software. Similarly, what does your cursor change to when hovering over a link? The same symbol that was used first to annotate manuscripts and still to indicate salient points, “continu[ing] to provide a link between the reader and the written word”.

As someone immersed in typing and editing who is interested in this sort of thing, I did know a few of the histories here but there was always something new to learn. I didn’t actually know until reading this why pounds, shillings and pence were denoted as l s d, for example. 

I particularly liked the mentions throughout of the auxiliaries around the production of books and text – “The many hands that play a role in selecting and refining the end product of a printed book or article” or, indeed, the scribe who copies a text and wants to save time by using some abbreviations. So scribes, typesetters, editors and publishers have had as much impact on these symbols as writers and thinkers themselves. It’s very clear that sometimes typesetters didn’t have the particular symbol a writer required in their set of type, so used one they already had, and this helped to codify the = sign in its horizontal form, for example. This goes up to modern times, when the * used for multiplication in computer programming came about because the original ASCII code didn’t have separate symbols for the variable ‘x’ and the multiplication symbol. 

This is a very nicely produced hardback with thick, crisp pages and clear, black type. We find a bibliography and index; there aren’t any footnotes so we have to take the assertions in the book at face value, however the author carefully includes names and manuscript and book titles a great deal of the time, so there is reference material to back things up. It would make a lovely gift for a type or word-lover in your life, or a present for yourself, of course. 

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Liz Dexter did happen to know what a pilcrow was anyway. Blame her job. She blogs at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Claire Cock-Starkey, Hyphens & Hashtags: The Stories Behind the Symbols on our Keyboards (Bodleian Library, 2021). 978-1851245369, 183 pp. 

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